For those of you who aren’t watching Warrior (or who haven’t even heard of it), I’m going straight to the hard sell on the streaming era’s most underappreciated drama: Based on an unearthed television pitch by late martial arts legend Bruce Lee and produced by his daughter Shannon, Warrior is a period crime drama set in 1870s San Francisco. Andrew Koji stars as Ah Sahm, a brash kung fu practitioner who becomes embroiled in Chinatown’s gang wars and the political struggle between exploited Chinese immigrants, disgruntled Irish working men, and the entrenched white establishment. If you enjoyed the gritty, character-driven historical fiction of Deadwood or Boardwalk Empire, you will love Warrior. If you were sucked into the political intrigue, blood and guts, and fucked up family drama of Game of Thrones, you will love Warrior. If you’re into martial arts cinema, particularly the incredibly intricate and shockingly gnarly modern variety, then you will love Warrior. It’s one of the best shows of its time, its upcoming season is better than ever, and with new home Max and parent company Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD) tightening their belts the time to start watching is right now, or else Warrior might be forced to retire in its prime.
Warrior is a series that could only have been born in the late 2010s, in the boom times of peak TV. It’s original, rather than based on a well-known intellectual property with a line of merchandise for sale, though it does boast Bruce Lee’s name above the title. It’s expensive, shot on lavish sets built in Cape Town, South Africa and featuring at least one elaborate, feature-quality action sequence per episode. It’s progressive, starring a predominantly Asian cast and unflinchingly condemning 19th century (and implicitly, modern) immigration policy and white supremacy. It’s exactly the kind of big swing that streamers like Max are putting the axe to right now in favor of adapting the Harry Potter books again, but it’s also the exact mix of drama, sex, violence, and social relevance that usually appeals to critics and cable audiences. Had Warrior premiered on a Sunday night on HBO, you would have heard about it long before now, but sadly its first two seasons aired on Cinemax, which all but guaranteed that no one would take it seriously. Even I hadn’t seen it until it was canceled by Cinemax and dropped onto HBO Max in January 2021, and I watch television for a living.
Thanks to its passionate new streaming audience, Warrior received a third season pickup and is finally returning to Max with new episodes on Thursday, June 29th, but had this newfound attention come only a year later, after HBO’s parent company Warner Bros. was merged with the penny-pinching Discovery, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation. Instead of a third season, Warrior might well have been shelved permanently, another of CEO David Zaszlav’s infamous tax write-offs. Should Season 3 not perform — hell, it probably needs to overperform, given how skittish and cash-strapped WBD appears to be at the moment — Warrior could easily bite the dust, which would be a great loss. If you’ve just heard of the series or have been putting it off for a rainy day, I implore you to start watching right now. You may not get another chance.
Now, for those of you who are already familiar with the series and have been patiently awaiting its return, I have great news: Warrior has not lost a single step. Despite the long production hiatus, nearly the entire cast and key creatives are back and there’s no evidence that its new network has attempted to retool it in any way. The story picks up months after Season 2’s horrific race riots, during which Ah Sahm cemented himself as Chinatown’s new folk hero. His neighbors used to fear him as a member of the Hop Wei tong, but now they admire him as their champion against the cops and the Irish. The ambitious young mobster finds himself questioning his place in the tong, even as his closest friend Young Jun (Jason Tobin) takes the throne. Meanwhile, Ah Sahm’s ruthless sister Mei Ling (Dianne Doan) continues to consolidate the rest of Chinatown’s gangs under her banner, while dipping her toe into white society in pursuit of greater influence. But as both she and madam/vigilante Ah Toy (Olivia Cheng) are about to discover, no amount of wealth or success may be enough to buy them respect outside of Chinatown. At the center of it all, as always, is the suave and cunning Hong Chao (Hoon Lee), Warrior’s answer to Deadwood’s Al Swearengen and one of modern TV’s most fascinating characters.
Nearly every returning regular receives a new foil this season. Sparks fly between Ah Sahm and Yan Mi (Chelsea Muirhead), a prickly new business associate. Li Yong (Joe Taslim), the noble warrior who remains tragically devoted to the city’s most vicious crime boss, is reunited with an old friend (Mark Dacascos) who appeals to his better nature. Quirky Hop Wei lieutenant Hong (Chen Tang) falls for a charming lounge singer (Telly Leung) who introduces him to San Francisco’s underground queer subculture. On the other side of town, crooked cop Bill O’Hara (Kieran Bew) finds himself at the mercy of a new, even more violently racist police chief (Neels Clasen), while poor opium-addicted Richard Lee (Tom Weston-Jones) is conscripted into the Secret Service. Even sinister Mayor Buckley (Langley Kirkwood) has a new ally and love interest (Dominique Maher). Absent this season are Joanna Vanderham and Céline Buckens as Penelope Blake and her sister Sophie, which has unfortunate implications for both characters, but with so much else going on in the season, they’re barely missed.
The connecting thread between all of these storylines is, as usual, the machinations of entrenched white wealth, as personified by Mayor Buckley and industrialist Douglas Strickland (Adam Rayner), who continue to play San Francisco’s starving Irish and Chinese laborers against each other. Irish union leader and back alley boxer Dylan Leary (Dean Jagger) digs into the nitty gritty of “legitimate” politics in the hopes of finding work for his constituents. Warrior continues to explore the tension between the recent Chinese immigrants and their Irish predecessors in a way that acknowledges the Irish’s understandable fury and desperation without ever ignoring or forgiving the racial hatred that accompanied it. Whether Leary and the rest of his men can see it or not, the text of the show plainly identifies the true villains as the politicians and robber barons who chew them up, spit them out, and then tell them to blame their problems on immigrants. Warrior’s focus on the efforts of wealthy white institutions conning white workers into siding with their color over their class has, sadly, not become any less relevant since the show went on hiatus.
By all rights, Warrior should be the next Breaking Bad, a show that languished in obscurity and was facing cancellation before its availability on Netflix launched it into the stratosphere. Warrior has picked up a lot of momentum since debuting on Max, but in an increasingly volatile industry, there’s every reason to fear that the show’s days are still numbered. Whatever happens, TV’s scrappiest underdog has come back swinging. Here’s to another three rounds.
Season three of ‘Warrior’ premieres June 29 on Max.